L.E.L.’s Last Question

Table of contents

1. L.E.L.’s Last Question

Do you think of me as I think of you?”
—From her poem written during the voyage to the Cape.
“Do you think of me as I think of you,
My friends, my friends?”—She said it from the sea,
The English minstrel in her minstrelsy,3
While, under brighter skies than erst she knew, 4
Her heart grew dark, and groped there, as the blind,
To reach across the waves friends left behind—
“Do you think of me as I think of you?”
It seemed not much to ask—as I of you?
We all do ask the same. No eyelids cover
Within the meekest eyes, that question over,
And little in the world the Loving do
But sit (among the rocks?) and listen for
The echo of their own love evermore—
“Do you think of me as I think of you?”
Love-learnèd she had sung of love and love,— 15
And like a child that, sleeping with dropt head
Upon the fairy-book he lately read,
Whatever household noises round him move,
Hears in his dream some elfin turbulence,—19
Even so, suggestive to her inward sense,
All sounds of life assumed one tune of love.
And when the glory of her dream withdrew,
When knightly gestes and courtly pageantries23
Were broken in her visionary eyes
By tears the solemn seas attested true,—
Forgetting that sweet lute beside her hand
She asked not,—Do you praise me, O my land?—
But,—“Think ye of me, friends, as I of you?”
Hers was the hand that played for many a year
Love’s silver phrase for England,—smooth and well.
Would God, her heart’s more inward oracle
In that lone moment might confirm her dear!
For when her questioned friends in agony
Made passionate response, “We think of thee,”
Her place was in the dust, too deep to hear.
Could she not wait to catch their answering breath?
Was she content, content, with ocean’s sound,
Which dashed its mocking infinite around
One thirsty for a little love?—beneath
Those stars content, where last her song had gone,—
They mute and cold in radiant life,—as soon
Their singer was to be, in darksome death?42
Bring your vain answers—cry, “We think of thee!”
How think ye of her? warm in long ago
Delights?—or crowned with budding bays? Not so.45
None smile and none are crowned where lieth she,
With all her visions unfulfilled save one,
Her childhood’s—of the palm-trees in the sun—48
And lo! their shadow on her sepulchre!
“Do ye think of me as I think of you?”—
O friends, O kindred, O dear brotherhood
Of all the world! what are we, that we should
For covenants of long affection sue?
Why press so near each other when the touch
Is barred by graves? Not much, and yet too much,
Is this “Think of me as I think of you.”
But while on mortal lips I shape anew
A sigh to mortal issues,—verily
Above the unshaken stars that see us die,
A vocal pathos rolls; and HE who drew60
All life from dust, and for all, tasted death,
By death and life and love, appealing, saith,
Do you think of me as I think of you?

2. Notes on the text

EBB’s elegy on Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802-1838) one of England’s most famous poets in the 1830s, first appeared in the Athenaeum (26 January 1839) shortly after the author’s tragic early death, and was then collected in Poems (1844). In 1838 L.E.L. married George Maclean, governor of Cape Coast, the major English settlement on the Gold Coast of West Africa. Soon after arriving there, she died suddenly at age 36, apparently from an accidental overdose of prussic acid which had been prescribed by a physician. The incident spawned rumors of suicide or murder. On the ship sailing to Africa, L.E.L. had written two poems that were published in the New Monthly Magazine in January 1839, just as news of her death reached England. EBB’s epigraph comes from one of these poems, “Night at Sea.” There the line, with variations, becomes a refrain: “My friends, my absent friends! / Do you think of me, as I think of you?,” reiterations which acquired special poignancy in light of L.E.L.’s recent death. A letter written by EBB’s sister Arabella (January 28, 1839) indicates that this question, which inspired EBB’s poem, had been reported in a newspaper as the last words in a last letter Landon wrote to friends a day or two before she died (BC 4:346). From her friend Mary Russell Mitford EBB received an unusual memento of L.E.L.—two plant seeds which Landon had sent from Africa before her death (see BC 4:119, 121n3). “L.E.L.’s Last Question” is a companion poem to EBB’s earlier work “Felicia Hemans,” which is as much addressed to L.E.L. as it is to Hemans.a16 Although EBB commended the work of both writers, calling them “the two poetesses of our day” (BC 3:153), she also frequently criticized their verse. Deeming that Hemans occupied a higher “pedestal” than Landon (BC 3:159), she nonetheless preferred Landon’s work for its “raw bare powers,” but judged it to be marred by conventionality and artificiality (see BC 5:75, 72)a19. Moreover, she continually resisted reviewers’ categorizing her with the two as “poetesses.” Criticism: Morlier (1993), Stone (1994), Furr (2002), and Ryan (2008). For a text of this poem with variants and extended annotation, see The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Vol. 1, General Editor, Sandra Donaldson, Volume Editors Marjorie Stone & Beverly Taylor (London: Pickering and Chatto).

3. Explanatory Notes

minstrelsy- the art and practice of a minstrel (singer, musician, poet).

erst- previously.

she L.E.L. had contributed hundreds of love lyrics to the annuals and giftbooks (Jerome McGann and Daniel Riess, eds. Letitia Elizabeth Landon: Selected Writings [Peterborough: Broadview, 1997], 13).

elfin- pertaining to elves, fairy-like.

gestes- noble deeds or actions, also stories or romances.

“Her lyric on the polar star, came home with her latest papers.” [EBB’s note]. The beginning of “The Polar Star,” L.E.L.’s other shipboard composition published in the New Monthly Magazine in January 1839, must in retrospect have seemed prophetic: “A star has left the kindling sky—.”

Bays- From classical antiquity, poets who triumphed in competitions were traditionally crowned with wreaths of bay (laurel) leaves.

palm-trees- traditionally associated with life.

HE- Christ.

Hemans The subtitle of “Felicia Hemans” is “To L.E.L., Referring to Her Monody on the Poetess”; for the text of this poem, see Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Selected, Annotated, Critical Edition, ed. Marjorie Stone & Beverly Taylor. (Broadview Press, 2009). For a text with variants and more extended annotation, see The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Vol. 1, General Editor, Sandra Donaldson, Volume Editors Marjorie Stone & Beverly Taylor (London: Pickering and Chatto).

EBB was not consistent in evaluating the two poets. On occasion she judged Hemans superior to L.E.L., whom she found “deficient in energy & condensation as well as in variety,” though she also thought Landon’s work was vivid, natural, and full of pathos (BC 3:159). For other comments by EBB on Hemans, see BC 7:214, 8:157-58, and on Landon, BC 3:193-94, 4:61.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: 2009-08-03
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